25/3/2020 0 Comments
If the world has mostly got worse over the last thirty years, as perhaps anyone who was twenty thirty years ago has always thought, one thing that has got dramatically better is the opening up of possibilities for the expression of sexuality and gender. The recognition not only of transgender identity but genderqueer and nonbinary identities is liberating in a way that wasn’t easy to imagine in the 1970s and 80s when I was growing up. We did have books in our house by Jan Morris, alongside books she wrote as James Morris, before she transitioned – her book on Oxford, written as James Morris, gave me an early Romantic feeling for Oxford that wasn't entirely undone by the years I lived there. I find the argument that transgender women don’t share the same experiences as cisgendered women no argument at all because who shares the same experiences as anyone? I can remember the same argument once being made about lesbian women who didn’t have the same romantic experiences as straight women. But who has the same romantic experiences as anyone? I don’t think anyone now would say loving a woman is less of a woman’s experience than loving a man, and having a childhood as a boy can’t be any less of a woman’s experience than having a childhood as a girl, given that some women have boyhoods, some have girlhoods. And the possibilities opening up for more complicated or more fluid gender identities can be welcomed without any contradiction or any loss of transgender identities. I’d like to be open to all the possible ways we can find to live our lives, not shutting down any possibilities but adding to a lovely array. I wouldn’t want to lose any of the possibilities, even problematic ones, because what gender concept isn’t problematic and what gender concept doesn’t have its possibilities for identity freedoms? The concept of the tomboy could mean all sorts of things for girls, in a way that the idea of the sissy never usefully did for boys when I was growing up. For a few years from around the age of 8 or 9 I liked to think of myself as a tomboy, which to me only gave me a word, and a kind of permission, for the way I liked going into the bush more than going to birthday parties and didn’t much like the kind of girl culture that was marketed to us, or perhaps was sold to us more by some of our peers than anyone in advertising. If I identified with literary tomboys like George and Jo, it was as a girl not as a boy being labelled a girl. For me, being a tomboy made me no less a girl, but opened up possibilities for what a girl could be. It had a kind of age limit to it, which for a transgender boy must have been an unbearably painful limitation, but if the concept could be kept in play alongside other liberating and available non-binary and transgender identities, perhaps it could still offer its own freedom without closing down any possibilities for others. One of my favourite novels, my favourite Virginia Woolf novel, is Orlando, and I love the Sally Potter film as well, the way Orlando swoops so joyously through the centuries and from one gender to another, with some irritating bureaucratic complications but nothing to trouble his, then her, sense of self. I was always also going to love essa may ranapiri’s collection ransack, with its series of letters to Orlando, and its ransacking of an impossibly inadequate language for all its ardour and despair, and I do love it, through and through. It is a reminder that Orlando’s freedom from body dysphoria and chemicals and hormone replacement therapy is not the experience of everyone (but what experience is?), a reminder that Orlando’s ease was always a fiction. But it is also a joyous and complicated and profound celebration of desire, intimacy, struggle, self-seeking and self-making, spaces between words, freedoms in quotation marks, “a sunrise with my gender / embossed in its peaking,” “a laugh that hit the high ceilings and tangled with the light”… Every time I read it (quite often) I find more to find, and every time I read it I want to see the world and our words held open to make space for everyone to be whoever it is possible they can be.
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